Paper presented at the 21st International focusing Conference, Awaji, Japan, May 2009


Theory Construction in TAE  


Campbell Purton


I taught TAE to psychotherapy research students for the first time this year, and found that in order for this part of TAE to make sense to them, I needed to say something about the nature of scientific theories and their development.  Why bother to develop a theory?  Why not just stay with one’s experiencing?


As Gendlin says in one of his video presentations, in order to appreciate the importance of theory we need to have some appreciation of what a theory is.

In this presentation  I will give three examples of theories, drawn from the work of Rogers, Newton and Freud.  This should make it clearer what a theory is, and then at the end we can look at the question of why theory construction can be interesting and important not just in connection with large questions at the frontiers of science, but also in connection with more everyday concerns.


Theories are distinguished from facts, although the dividing line between the two can be hazy:  the theory that the earth revolves around the sun as become an accepted fact.  And sometimes a previously accepted fact, such as the fact that the earth is flat, can be demolished by the construction of a new theory. People say ‘But that’s just a theory’ or ‘Evolution is not a theory – it is a fact’.  Sometimes people use ‘theory’ to mean much the same as ‘hypothesis’, but we need to distinguish between hypotheses about what happens in the world and hypotheses about why these things happen.


(1)  Hypotheses about regularities (patterns)  -  eg whether it is true that coffee can interfere with sleep, or that listening to people is therapeutic. Establishing whether such regularities exist usually requires observation, data collection or experiments.   The discovered rgularities are, as it were, straightforward facts about the world.  Things behave like this, or they don’t.


(2)  Theories, on the other hand don’t just state what the regularities or patterns are.  They attempt to explain why the regularities exist, through putting forward a view of the underlying nature of things.    Theories  answer ‘Why?’ questions.  E.g. once it is established that coffee 9in some circumstances, and in some people) interferes with sleep we can investigate what it is about the nature of coffee and the nature of sleep, such one interferes with another.  The theory is likely to bring in

lots of other things – caffeine, chemicals in the brain and so on.  Once you have the theory you say ‘Ah, yes, now I understand why that happens’, or at least ‘I do see how that  could explain why it happens’.



A theory of that sort still works within familiar concepts and principles – it shows how the pattern fits with those concepts and principles.  It is essentially a puzzle-solving activity – the puzzle is how existence of the regularity  follows from what we already know about the world.  Much scientific research is like this – the historian Thomas Kuhn referred to it as ‘normal science’.


However,  some scientific developments are not a matter of fitting the pattern into the familiar concepts and principles  but of developing new concepts.  This clearly happens in the work of great innovators such as Newton, Darwin and Freud.  But it probably happens in a less obvious way in many theoretical developments.  It is that sort of theoretical development that TAE is concerned with, the sort where we do not explain a pattern by fitting it into pre-existing concepts, but allow the pattern to change the concepts or to generate new concepts.





Carl Rogers’ theory of psychotherapy can illustrate this generation of new concepts.  It is characteristic of theories that once they become widely accepted they tend to be seen as established facts – it no longer seems to us a theory that the earth rotates around the sun.  And for many of us in the therapy world it can seem that Rogers simply discovered some regularities that are there – especially that clients make better progress if the therapist is empathic, accepting and genuine.  But this misses the creativity involved in the construction of Rogers’ theory, and also assumes that empathy, acceptance and genuineness were there all the time, and it only needed Rogers to notice them and their importance.


What Rogers seems to have begun with is the realisation that most of the factors that might be expected to be relevant to successful therapy, are not very relevant. In practice, what seemed to matter was that the therapist should, in Rogers’ (1961, p. 131) word, ‘receive’ the client.  And then within that general sense of ‘receiving the client’ Rogers began to differentiate various elements in ‘receiving’.  One element was the idea of standing in the client’s shoes, or remaining in the client’s frame of reference.  This was a kind of understanding, which could called ‘empathy’.  Then there was the element of  prizing, valuing, treasuring the client – Rogers had many words here, but eventually adopted a technical term to label this element – ‘unconditional positive regard’.  Then a bit later Rogers was struck by a further element, which could be pointed at by terms such as ‘genuineness’, ‘authenticity’, ‘realness’, but again he chose the technical term ‘congruence’ as a label for this.   Notice that only one of these crucial terms – ‘empathy’ – is used in something like its ordinary use; precisely because of that it has to be carefully guarded from misunderstanding.  It needs to mean here what Rogers wants it to mean; for instance, it needs to be distinguished from such things as sympathy and intellectual understanding.


There is something that Rogers wants his terms to mean.   He wants them to mean what comes from different elements of the felt sense of ‘receiving the client’.  In that felt sense they are all together.  Several writers on person-centred theory have noticed this – that Rogers’ ‘conditions’ are closely inter-related.   For instance Bozarth (2001, pp. 145, 147) writes:


Empathy in client-centred therapy is a concept that is integrated with the conditions of congruency and unconditional positive regard…The concepts of empathy and unconditional positive regard are fundamentally the same in Rogerian theory.


If we were beginning from the felt sense of ‘receiving the client’, and working in a TAE sort of way we would do something like this:  We would give the three main terms labels and try understanding them as inherently connected.


The TAE development would be something like:


E Empathy


C Congruence


Our felt sense tells us these terms are connected.

So we try connecting them explicitly  -  using ‘=’ to indicate some kind of  inherent link.  We could try out:


Empathy = UPR  ( This could be the idea that Empathy involves UPR : you can’t really be with someone unless you respect them, and  UPR involves an element of empathy:  you can’t really fully respect someone unless you understand them )


UPR = congruence   (UPR must be genuine: you are not  really respecting someone  unless you are being genuine with them,  and  being congruent with someone shows a respect for your relationship with them).


Congruence = empathy  (This could be the point that Empathy must be genuine: You are not really empathising with someone if you are not being genuine with them, and  you are not being congruent with them unless you understand them).


Now we could bring in another term that seems closely bound up with the three conditions –  the notion of self-healing, or what Rogers called the ‘actualising tendency’ (AT).


We try making AT inherently link with the others, like this:


AT = empathy:  the idea that self-healing involves empathy with oneself

A new concept has emerged here – the concept of self-empathy


AT = UPR     AT flourishes in UPR

                      UPR encourages the AT

This suggests that the AT is relational – it depends on the environment.


AT =  congruence      Congruence is the AT  -  congruence is the organism being itself

So  congruence is a process 


Here the theory  is developing:   it brings a new set of concepts, a new way of thinking, and this new way of thinking begins to explain some important regularities – such as the fact that just listening to a client can be healing, that deep relationship can be healing, that focusing can be healing:


Why can just  listening to a client be healing?

Because the listening can embody UPR and the AT flourishes in UPR

The theory suggests that only some sorts of listening will be healing – it won’t be healing if I’m listening hard with a view to catching you out! The theory will tell you about the kind of listening that is important


Why is engaging at relational depth healing?
Because relational depth typically involves high levels of  U, E and C

But only this sort of relational depth will help – not, e,g., the sort that is said to exist sometimes between torturer and victim, or other abusive relationships.  There can be relations in depth that are deeply destructive.


Why do clients who do focusing make better progress?

Because focusing involves self-empathy and self-acceptance, and empathy and acceptance facilitate the actualising tendency.

Also because focusing involves being more congruent and being more congruent is an actualisation of the individual


A good theory develops terms that illuminate many regularities, many connections.

It pulls together things which previously seemed separate

It also shows us the limitations of the regularities, such as the limitation that not all listening will be therapeutic.  The theory begins to tell us what the limitations are.


Finally, it may be possible to apply the theory in new fields – Rogers began to apply his theory to education and group work.  The theory now being applied in the field of spirituality.  If the theory is a good one it will work in new fields because it is tapping into something that is there in the nature of things, in the deep interconnectedness of things.   The felt sense comes from that place, and the theory makes explicit the interconnections within the felt sense.


Theories are important because they give us access to the interconnectedness of things.  They display the world in a way that shows its interconnectedness.  The connections between the terms of the theory are rooted in the connectedness of the world, although there may be alternative theories that can display different  ways in which there in interconnection.




Does what I have said apply in science generally?  I think it does, but the point is hard to illustrate without technical knowledge of the branch of science in question.  In physics it can be hard to see what is going on, because the interconnections are often formulated mathematically. However, we can get a glimpse of how it works by  looking briefly at Newton’s theory of motion, developed in the 17th Century, near the beginning of modern physics.  Newton’s theory is so much part of common sense by now that we may have some difficulty in appreciating it as a theory.  We take for granted that a moving object will continue to move unless prevented by an external force, and that the change in the motion of a body is proportional to the force exerted on it.   Really to appreciate Newton, one has to look back to Aristotle’s very different conception of  motion, or to look ahead to Einstein for another quite different way of seeing things.  However, without going deeply into the historical aspects we still can appreciate that Newton didn’t find his concepts there ready-made – he formulated them out of his knowledge and experience of motion (including much that was familiar to him through the earlier work of people such as Kepler and Galileo).


In coming to understand concepts we don’t necessarily have to follow the route that their originator followed.  All we have to appreciate is the way the concepts are interconnected.  So rather than trying to follow Newton’s own train of thought we will try reconstructing his concepts in the following TAE way:


In our experience of motion, big things take more shifting than little things, and the bigger the push the more something moves.  We could start with that, and draw out of it three main terms:


B  Bigness

P  Push

AM Amount of motion


In our experience of moving things, these three seem all to come together.  So we try making links between the terms:


B=P      Big things in motion create more push

P=AM      The more the push the more the change in motion

AM=B      The more the change in motion, the bigger the thing must have been.


Then checking back with the felt sense we realise that we need to specify more exactly what our terms are to mean, or introduce new technical terms that will have just those specified meanings:


By B (bigness) we mean not just size but more pushing-ability, or massiveness (M)

By P (push) we mean not just what moves something, but also what stops things from moving, deflects things, gets thing moving faster  -  P produces change in motion. Call this ‘Force’, F

Then instead of AM we seem to need a term for change in the amount of  motion, what we might call acceleration, A


Then we can say precisely that


More F (force) gives more A (acceleration) for a given M (mass)

More M (mass) needs more F (force) for the same A (acceleration)


These are the sort of relationships that can be expressed by elementary algebra:


F= M x A     (fix M – then more F gives more A)


M = F/A   ( fix A – then more M means more F)

A= F/M   (fix F  - then less M will mean more A)


The terms are interlinked – none can be understood without the others. These are theoretical terms, terms developed as elements of theory, and dependent on each other for their meanings.

They have very specific meanings – acceleration doesn’t cover only going faster and faster – but also slowing down, or being deflected -  A is change in motion.

Mass is not same as bigness in the sense of size – it is ‘quantity of matter’ – measured by how much push is needed to give a particular acceleration.

Force is not just something felt.  We feel the force of the wind, but we don’t feel the force of the earth’s magnetism.  That force is shown in how a compass needle moves. It is shown in how the moon moves around the earth.  (That particular force becomes known as ‘gravity’.  There was no such thing in Aristotle’s physics). 


These concepts form the core of Newton’s theory of motion.  Aristotle had different concepts, so did Einstein.  Newton’s theory could be applied in many areas, and formed the backbone of much of physics for 200 years or more.


A theory is an interlinked set of  terms (concepts) that illuminates the inter-connectedness of the world.  (But the world is interconnected in myriad ways, so that although Newton’s theory is a good theory there can be others, such as Aristotle’s and Einstein’s).


Rogers could sense a connectedness involved in ‘receiving’ a client and the client being helped -  his theory formulates this connectedness in an explicit way.


Newton could sense a connectedness involved in all motion, whether that of an apple falling to the earth, or that of the planets – his theory formulates that connectedness in an explicit way.




Here is a third example, that Gendlin has discussed a bit in one of his video presentations. It concerns one of Freud’s early formulations of his basic theory.

(see his ‘Formulations regarding the two principles in mental functioning’ (1911). In Psychological Papers, Vol 4, pp. 13-21).


We can begin from these patterns (regularities):


People often have distorted perceptions, unrealistic views. 

People may deceive themselves, deny things, or see things that are not there.

Some slips of tongue seem to be motivated.

We may mis-remember – in a way that is congenial to us.

These all seem to be connected – as if there is one bit of us that sees things as they are, and another bit that sees what it wants to see.  As often happens in theory construction, there is a metaphor at work here – a metaphor (very familiar now) of a person as a committee of sub-persons.


If we are following a TAE process we now choose some terms and link them:


The bit that sees things as they are:   Call this  RB -  the reality bit

The bit that sees things as we’d like them to be:   Call this PB -  the pleasure bit

The process by which the pleasure bit represses (distorts or denies) reality:  Call this REP


Then TAE suggests that we connect the terms:


RB = PB       The RB (reality bit) is repressed by PB (pleasure bit)

PB = REP     The PB (pleasure bit) is what does the REP (repression)

REP =  RB    REP (repression) works on the RB  (reality bit)


From this Freud’s early concepts naturally arise:


A ‘pleasure-ego’ that ‘can do nothing but wish, work towards gaining pleasure and avoiding pain’  and a ‘reality-ego’ that does ‘nothing but strive for what is useful and guard itself against damage’ (Freud, p. 18). Also repression, where ‘the neurotic turns away from reality because he finds it unbearable – either the whole or parts of it’ (p. 13).


The theory now begins to explain some of the patterns we started from:


In psychological disturbance the pleasure-ego is dominant, and the reality-ego is weak, so that the person has difficulties through not being in realistic contact with the world. 

Self-deception is explained as the pleasure-ego over-ruling the reality-ego.

Mis-remembering is similar.

Slips of the tongue can be understood as the pleasure-ego managing to say what it feels in spite of the reality-ego’s attempts to guard against such expression.


Freud believed that he had discovered that much psychological disturbance is related to sexuality – can the theory explain that?  Yes, because in human sexual development there is a long latency period in which the pleasure-ego is not modified by the reality ego.  Hence it would not be surprising if psychological disturbance were related to sexuality. 


Freud then extends his theory to issues in religion, education  and art. He suggests that:

Religion reconciles the pleasure-ego with the reality-ego by promising happiness in the next life if you abandon pleasure in this life

Education involves the control of the pleasure-ego by the reality-ego  -  learning how the world is, not how we would like it to be

Artists reconcile the pleasure-ego with the reality-ego  by creating fantasy realities which other people will nevertheless buy from them.  Thus artists can indulge their pleasure-ego while managing to earn their living in the real world.


‘Pleasure-ego’ and ‘reality-ego’ are theoretical terms. They can be seen as ‘bits’ of the self, but they are different from phenomenological ‘bits’ such as ‘my angry bit’ and ‘my scared bit’.  Yet it would be wrong to say that they have no experiential aspect: someone who has come to think in these terms may well describe an experience as one in which their pleasure-ego broke through the normal repression.   Similarly, although electrons and other sub-atomic particles are theoretical terms, physicists speak of  seeing their tracks in cloud-chamber photographs.


Small-scale theories


The theories I have considered are wide-ranging theories in which theorists of genius have created new way of seeing things.   But one fascinating thing about TAE is that the same principles apply in trying to understand much more limited aspects of the world.  In the natural sciences theory has by now become highly developed, and in order to make a creative contribution one has to become familiar with the development of the theory up to now.  That is what undergraduate and postgraduate study of a branch of science involves.  However, in human affairs, unlike in the natural sciences, there are few really well developed theories, and those that do exist, such as psychoanalytic theory, tend to be highly controversial. 


This means that there is plenty of space for people who are familiar with some aspect of human life to develop theories about it.  The point of doing this, apart from the inherent satisfaction of gaining understanding,  is to make explicit some of the connections that can be sensed within that field, so that other people can pick up more quickly on what some of those connections are.   Once a theory is developed, other people will be senitised to what they might usefully look for; they won’t have to go through the whole process by which the originator of the theory got hold of the concepts.  This is largely how advances in understanding come about.  I remember the philosopher Karl Popper saying in his lectures ‘If everyone had to start where Adam and Eve started, then we would not have got any further than Adam and Eve’.  But for one person to build on another’s experience, the first person needs to be able to formulate their experience in general concepts that nevertheless arise from their particular experiencing.  The second person then approaches their own experiencing with those concepts, and then discovers either that the concepts work for them, and carry them forward, or they may find that the concepts need to be modified.  The development of new understanding is thus a highly inter-personal and collective activity.  It involves both individual experiencing and the development of general concepts and theories which formulate that experiencing.


Such  development of concepts and theories is what is involved in creative thinking, and Gendlin points out that anyone can do this.  It is true that you can’t do creative thinking in physics without a long immersion in physical theory, but in most human fields there is little pre-existent theory to be mastered.  These fields await the creative thinking of anyone who has significant experience in the field, and who can therefore sense the connections that are there.  It is from those sensed connections that a theory may be developed.